SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea's leader said Friday that his rocket forces are ready "to settle accounts with the U.S.," an escalation of the country's bellicose rhetoric and a direct response to U.S. nuclear-capable B-2 bombers joining military drills with South Korea a day earlier.
Kim Jong Un's comments in an early morning meeting with his senior generals are part of a rising tide of threats meant to highlight anger over the military drills and recent U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang's nuclear test. North Korea sees U.S. nuclear firepower as a direct threat to its existence and claims the annual military drills are a preparation for invasion. Pyongyang also uses the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a justification for its own push for nuclear-tipped missiles that can strike the United States — a goal that experts believe to be years away, despite a nuclear test last month and a long-range rocket launch in December.
A full-blown North Korean attack is unlikely, though there are fears of a more localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters. Such naval clashes have happened three times since 1999. North Korea's threats are seen by outside analysts as efforts to provoke South Korea to soften its policies and to win direct talks with Washington that could result in aid. Kim's comments are also seen as ways to build domestic loyalty and strengthen his military credentials.
Kim "convened an urgent operation meeting" early Friday, signed a rocket preparation plan and ordered his forces on standby to strike the U.S. mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, state media reported. Many analysts say they've seen no evidence that Pyongyang's missiles can hit the U.S. mainland. But it has capable short- and mid-range missiles, and Seoul is only a short drive from the heavily armed border separating the Koreas.